Monday, November 26, 2012

Magic, Midsummer, & Macbeth



The witches of Macbeth beguile not only the title character but Shakespeare’s original and modern audiences.  They are arguably one of the most celebrated aspects of this tragedy.  Their often rhyming lines, sing-song phrases, and fantastical descriptions of their magic make them memorable and mystifying.  There is something about Hecate and her followers that transform this play into something more than a drama about power, kingship, and control.  Shakespeare’s inclusion of supernatural forces gives this story a larger scale and makes it appear grander because of the mysterious witches that know so much.  As one reads their famous “Double, double, toil and trouble,/ Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” speech, it is impossible not to get into a musical pattern because of Shakespeare’s skill in writing the contents of the cauldron (4.1.10-11).  While reading this act, I could not help but notice similarities between Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This is an interesting pairing, as one is definitely a tragedy and the other a comedy, but both maintain an element of whimsy and supernatural, although in completely separate ways.  A Midsummer was first performed around the year 1595 and Macbeth was originally performed in 1606.  Perhaps Shakespeare is acknowledging his fairy comedy again, eleven years later, by inserting elements found in A Midsummer into the witches scene of Macbeth.  Hecate states in 4.1 something that easily could be read in A Midsummer: “And now about the cauldron sing/ Like elves and fairies in a ring,/ Enchanting all that you put in” (lines 41-43). Shakespeare is conceivably adopting elements of his original fanciful play into this tragic drama because it did so well with the audience in 1595.  There are obviously no cauldrons present in A Midsummer, but fairies do play a significant role in the comedy and it would be easy to imagine Titania stating Hecate’s line, although in a somewhat different manner.  A more apparent relation between these two plays is the mention of spirits named “Puckey,” and “Robin,”: “Firedrake, Puckey, make it lucky;/ Liard, Robin, you must bob in” (4.1.47-48).  Anyone who has read A Midsummer Night’s Dream knows of the famous Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck or a puck, the magical imp henchman to Oberon.  I do not know the history of Elizabethan folklore, but I like to think Shakespeare is creating unity between the two dramas.  Using the name of a key character of his earlier play and attaching it to a spirit in Macbeth shows genius. Interestingly, a fairy does call Puck in A Midsummer, a “hobgoblin” which may relate to the goblin-like witches of Macbeth (2.1.40). 
            What caused me to draw this parallel between these plays was the Spirit’s and Hecate’s song in 3.5 that is remarkably similar to a fairy’s in A Midsummer.  They sing “Over woods, high rocks and mountains,/ Over seas and misty fountains,/ Over steeples, towers and turrets,/ We fly by night ‘mongst troops of spirits” (3.5.62-65).  This is amazingly akin to Fairy’s 2.1 speech when Robin asks how the fairy is and the reply is: “Over hill, over dale, Thorough bush, thorough brier, / Over park, over pale,/ Thorough flood, thorough fire:/ I do wander everywhere (1.2.2-6).  The repetition of the word “over” and the spirits and fairy both singing of flying and wandering high above all the earth is so alike.  Shakespeare had to have been aware of the similarity and maybe recycled the same notion because it gives the witches a sense of other worldliness that the fairy encapsulates in A Midsummer.  Both sections are also very catchy and would be great for an actor to recite with passion in front of an audience. 
            Finally, the speeches made by the witches and Titania regarding the gathering of materials is alike, yet different and appropriate for their genres.  In A Midsummer, the fairy queen tells her fairy followers to “feed [Bottom] with apricots and dewberries,/ With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;/ the honeybags steal from the humble-bees/… And pluck the wings from painted butterflies/ To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes” (3.1.148-150, 154-155).  This segment has a pastoral, light, and magical quality to it.  In Macbeth, however, the thrilling descriptions get darker: “Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,/ Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf/ Of the ravined salt-sea shark,/ Root of hemlock digged i’th’ dark,/ Liver of blaspheming Jew…” (4.1.22-26).   These ingredients are sinister and cast an entirely different mood over the scene as compared to Titania’s scene.  The gloom created by the witches plays well with Macbeth’s twisted, evil character.  The characters in A Midsummer are more concerned with love and therefore have lighter objects in their list.  It would be interesting to research and compare the supernatural characters of Macbeth to that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s frequent use of the supernatural tells what the Elizabethan theatre audience found enticing and what he thought made for great drama, whether comedy or tragedy.

3 comments:

Christina Lee said...

I love your analysis of fairies versus witches in both Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I like the comparison of the gathering of the materials for their spells. But, what I think that Shakespeare is able to show is the different forms of supernatural beings. Fairies are notorious for being tricksters and being almost a light-hearted terror, that lurks humans. Most importantly to note however, is that fairies are fully supernatural. They have wings and do not look or resemble humans. They are in a physical characteristic of their own. Furthermore fairies are just magic. They do not have to conjure anything. They just simply make it with nature's ingredients and add some magic to whatever potion that they are creating. The witches however, are a different story. In fact the witches, unlike fairies are not as magical as fairies. They take on a human form, which is already one difference from fairies. Second, they have to actively make spells and conjure potions using, un-natural ingredients, or ingredients that require an animal to die. Furthermore the witches mix with the humans and can be seen during the day. That is a new revelation from the fairies who are only seen at night. The witches are in dark settings, but having the witches come out in the day, shows how unnatural witches are compared to fairies in the magical world. But I do agree that the supernatural does add not only a surprised element, but a dark element that explodes within the play and the imagination.

Vanessa Pavelock said...

I found this comparative analysis between Shakespeare's fairies in Midsummer Night's Dream and his witches in Macbeth to be extremely compelling. While the faeries in Midsummer Nights Dream ultimately create a comedic effect, they could have easily caused tragedy through their careless use of power. The faeries are therefore not unlike the witches who use their power to manipulate human action. The main difference of these supernatural figures merely lies within the overall outcome of their influence, and the true intentions of these characters. I really enjoyed how you drew the parallel between the “Over woods...” speech in Macbeth to the “Over hill” speech in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Through looking at these speeches, we can further see how the power of the witches and of the faeries is very similar. Both speeches emphasize the word “over,” highlighting the idea that these character’s are above the natural world. The major difference between these characters and the outcome of their actions is therefore the differing application of their power.

Cyrus Mulready said...

I'm really just echoing Christina and Vanessa in saying how much I appreciated your thoughts on Midsummer and Macbeth, Jacey! To take Vanessa's point a little further, too, I think the relationship between the play and the natural world is really fascinating in this play. And in this way the two plays are actually similar. We might remember that there are reports of floods and other disasters in Midsummer that are attributed to the fighting fairies. Likewise in Macbeth there seems to be a relation between the supernatural and natural worlds, with reports of horses eating each other, birds calling out, and other phenomena.